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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 8524

Senator HUMPHRIES (1:31 PM) —I heard the call from Senator McGauran for every senator to state his or her position on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009 [No. 2] and related bills and I have come down to answer that challenge—not as entertainingly as he has, I am sure, but I will attempt to put my position clearly. It is three months since coalition senators and the crossbench voted to defeat the Labor government’s original package of climate change bills. I expressed some regret on that occasion that this debate was shrouded in misinformation and misrepresentation and I am sad to say that today, three months later, very little has changed. Very sadly, this is a political debate before it is a debate about the environment.

I want first to address the question of the status of climate science and the issue that many senators have raised in this place already about the extent to which we should be relying on that climate science to make decisions about this matter. In the course of these debates, many contributors with limited or no scientific knowledge have passed judgment on the validity of scientific findings about man-made global warming. I am not a scientist. I have difficulty on occasion understanding the technical arguments that are presented in many of the scientific papers which support the argument for climate science. To the best of my knowledge, there are no members of the federal parliament who in fact have expertise in climate science.

However, lest someone might say it is appalling and inappropriate that the Australian parliament should make a decision about what to do about climate science when we have no expertise in our ranks on that question, I would respond by saying it has always been the role of members of parliament not to necessarily acquire for themselves an intimate knowledge of the areas in which they are conducting a debate but to in fact take the best available advice on a particular area and learn and act accordingly. We live in a society with a very sophisticated and elaborate division of labour. It is not possible for all of us to understand completely areas of specialised knowledge. We must therefore rely on experts in those areas of specialised knowledge to guide us in the actions that we take, particularly as members of this place.

When I climb aboard a plane to fly to Sydney, I confess that I do not understand the functioning and the structure of the jet engine that lifts the plane out of the airport and into the sky. When I receive a vaccination I do not know what the chemical compounds are in the vaccine that is injected into my veins. I rely on a scientific consensus from chemists and medical practitioners that this vaccine will protect me from harm and that it will do what I am told it will do. I do not rely in those circumstances just on the knowledge of the technician who might have prepared that particular batch of vaccine; I rely in fact on the whole scientific orthodoxy which has created the environment in which that vaccine can be safely produced—scientific values, rigour, training and research principles. I put it to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that every one of us, every day, relies on that kind of scientific consensus and knowledge that is filtered and sifted over sometimes decades in order to arrive at a credible and appropriate use of that science by the broader population.

I see climate science in a very similar sense. It is true that climate science is not as settled as some other areas of science. It is true that there is dissent and disagreement about the prevailing orthodoxy in that area. In general terms, it would be best when confronted with uncertainty to wait until the science is settled. That option is not available to us here because, if we accept the majority scientific opinion, we have to accept that the need for action is immediate. The need is now, not in the 10, 20 or 30 years it might take to collect the data necessary to establish the truth or otherwise on climate science and climate change. It is not an academic debate about whether Pluto is the ninth planet in the solar system or something less than that or about the exact nature of the virus affecting the faces of Tasmanian devils. This is an immediate, real issue, the consequences of which, if the science is to be believed, will have an immediate and very real impact on not just our society but the entire world.

It is true that there are some specialists who argue that the science is wrong—that the evidence is not conclusive and that it points, in fact, in the other direction. But, to senators who are considering that argument, I say that we need to act not just on the basis of what appears to laypeople to be a convincing argument with respect to climate science but also to look at the majority consensus in this particular area. What is the majority consensus in the area of climate science? It is that man made activities are slowly and inexorably warming the globe and that the consequence of that, if the more severe scenarios eventuate, will be catastrophic for mankind. The majority opinion that I refer to is overwhelming in its verdict.

Let me list some of the organisations which subscribe to the view I have just postulated: the Royal Society of Canada, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French academy of science, Germany’s National Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Italian academy of sciences, the Science Council of Japan, the Mexican academy of sciences, the Russian academy of sciences, the Academy of Science of South Africa, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. We have heard from other senators about the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That body recommends very strongly, notwithstanding what Senator McGauran has said, action on climate change, and its membership is impressive in its collection of scientific expertise on this area. It includes: the CSIRO of Australia, Environment Canada, the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute of Japan, the Finnish Environment Institute, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, Germany’s federal environment agency, Russia’s institute of global climate and ecology, the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in Japan, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the United Kingdom and the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research of Norway to list only a few. That is the scientific consensus of which I spoke. That is the overwhelming majority opinion of the world’s scientists with expertise in these areas.

The National Academy of Sciences in the United States has said:

In the judgment of most climate scientists, Earth’s warming in recent decades has been caused primarily by human activities that have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Royal Society in Britain, also known as the UK’s national academy of science, says:

International scientific consensus agrees that increasing levels of man-made greenhouse gases are leading to global climate change.

Our own Australian Academy of Science has a very illustrious membership with many Nobel laureates represented amongst its members. Every one of us would have had some interaction with members of that organisation. It endorsed the findings of the fourth assessment report of the IPCC, saying, in a statement on 1 July 2008, that:

… the increases in global average temperatures and sea level are unambiguous and are almost certainly primarily due to greenhouse gas emissions.

If members of this place doubt that that does represent the majority opinion of the world’s climate scientists, I ask them to apply the following test themselves: we have heard reference to many people who do not agree with those views—Professor Bob Carter and Professor Ian Plimer, for example, within Australia—but how many of those points of view have been adopted by peak scientific bodies in any country of the world? The answer is, to the best of my knowledge, absolutely none. It tells us quite clearly that the opinions we are receiving from those organisations, and from peak scientific bodies, are close to unanimous in their warnings to us and that we would be foolish in the extreme to ignore those warnings. We cannot choose to accept the advice of such bodies only when it is convenient and only when it pleases us. There will always be questions and doubts about some areas of scientific activity. In a case like this we cannot use that doubt to preclude us from taking action where action is called for. In saying that, I cannot exclude the possibility that that minority sceptical viewpoint might ultimately be right. I take the same view as Senator Birmingham took in his speech the other day. I hope that they are, in fact, right. It would be infinitely easier, cheaper and more convenient if the danger of global warming were not to be a danger at all. But it is dangerous to delay action in the hope that they might be right. We simply do not have that luxury.

The problem of dealing with this situation, however, is compounded immensely by the fact that the Rudd government, in response to this urgent climate problem, has presented an emissions trading scheme which is deeply flawed and which contains many, many problems. They are problems which have been drawn attention to by a very large number of commentators, left and right, scientific and not scientific—all of them pointing to a need for serious revision of the government’s proposed response to this problem. It is flawed and will unnecessarily harm Australian exports, jobs and living standards. That is why the coalition has been negotiating with the federal government in good faith to attempt to mitigate the more extreme elements of this package. The ball is now in the Labor Party’s court because it is beyond question that there are flaws in the original bill and that the number of opponents of the legislation, as it now stands, is legion.

If the amendments proposed by the coalition are accepted by the government, I believe those amendments would prevent the closing down of important industries and save thousands of jobs in trade exposed sectors such as aluminium, coal and natural gas. The proposals would cushion the impact of power price increases on small businesses and consumers, in some cases cutting them by up to half, without taking the pressure off industry, particularly the energy industry, to develop alternative strategies for dealing with our global problem. We believe the exclusion of agriculture is a very important part of that process, and the allowance of offsets for forestry and soil carbon sequestration and other measures is very important.

It is important to recognise that in proposing these amendments the coalition is not suggesting, as some have said, that we should be rewarding polluters, that we should be simply watering down the effect of the measures the government has proposed in order to simply delay the inevitable. I think it is about managing a transition to a new low emissions future. I ask members to bear in mind that as a society we have a huge amount of adjustment to make to become genuinely less polluting than we are today. Bankrupting a coal fired power station might give some zealots in our society a great deal of satisfaction, but it would be a very dangerous step: it would disadvantage the customers of that power station, it would certainly create unemployment in the community in which that power station operated and I think it would ultimately lead to a weakening of a process of public support for an emissions trading scheme, and the other measures that go with it, to reduce our climate profile. As well, I believe it is important to acknowledge that the amendments proposed by the opposition would allow for voluntary action in energy efficiency to be recognised. It has been the power of individuals through personal choice and action that has shaped so much of our world, particularly in the area of climate change, and that kind of public support and pressure for change in societal activity is a very important part of this process and must be supported.

As I said, there are some serious flaws. One that I made reference to a moment ago, the lack of harnessing of community activity, is reflected in the government scheme by the inability of communities and individuals to make a difference with respect to Australia’s climate targets. Dr Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute—and that is not a body I usually quote—made a very important point about the way in which this government’s scheme works in that respect. He said in a research paper he wrote in November last year:

... Australian households will be largely disempowered and unable to help abate Australia’s emissions through their own efforts but with a higher emissions target, the consequences will not be as dire.

If a person decides to ride their bike to work or installs a solar hot water system on their roof, they are removing the obligation of their electricity company or their fuel company to buy an extra emissions permit. This means that another polluter, perhaps a cement kiln or a steel works, can instead buy a permit to cover increased pollution from their plant.

If people decide to spend money on voluntary offsets so that they can become ‘carbon neutral’, all they will have done is increase the amount of pollution that others can emit although Australia, as a country, will continue to stay within its ‘cap’.

That is a very serious flaw in this government’s policy. It effectively disempowers communities to take steps towards reducing the nation’s overall emissions levels. There is nothing in the government scheme as presently drafted which addresses that issue. That is one of the reasons the coalition has said we need to revise the way in which this government is operating.

Another concern is with respect to the way in which the government deals with the question of compensation. In its original form, the CPRS provided compensation to low-income households and non-government organisations for the rises that will be incurred in energy costs. This is not, however, the case for state government instrumentalities. I do not normally come in here to argue the case for state governments. However, I have to say on this particular occasion I acknowledge that these organisations will have to meet significantly higher costs because of the way that this government scheme has been designed. Access Economics estimates that those costs will be in the order of $2.1 billion every year. This amounts to a cost which has to be borne ultimately in the form of reduced services by state government instrumentalities or by higher taxes and charges. Again, Dr Denniss from the Australian Institute said:

Responding to climate change involves ‘mitigation’, which means trying to reduce emissions in order to avoid dangerous climate change and ‘adaptation’, which means investing in new forms of infrastructure and services to help cope with the change that we cannot avoid. Unfortunately for the state governments, the way that the Rudd Government has divvied up these responsibilities ensures that the less effort the Commonwealth puts into avoiding climate change the more money the states will have to spend adapting to it.

He comes to the conclusion:

It is hard to imagine a scheme that is less fair than the CPRS.

I completely agree with him. Only a couple of weekends ago, UnionsACT—again a body I do not usually quote in this place—wrote an open letter to the Chief Minister of the ACT government that was published in the Canberra Times saying:

Rising electricity bills are an unavoidable consequence of the CPRS, but unless public sector budgets rise accordingly there will have to be a reduction in services, jobs and the wages budget—or an increase in ACT taxes—to meet these increased costs.

Based on the Access Economics report the costs are estimated to be $18 million in 2013 rising to $43 million by 2020. Those are the sorts of costs which, for a small jurisdiction like the ACT, would be very difficult to address. I want to see our community adopt real local solutions to some of these problems, but we cannot do that with the way that the current government’s CPRS is designed.

Rising in this place, as so many of my colleagues have, to say that the government scheme is fundamentally flawed and must change should not be interpreted as a call to stop any kind of change to address the challenges in our environment. It is a call to be realistic, to acknowledge that this community is a sophisticated, educated community which is capable of contributing to a debate about these matters so it is not dealt with in the very unsatisfactory way that this government has done by laying a take it or leave it proposal on the table and, until relatively recently, refusing to debate it. Our response to climate change will have to evolve over time. Whatever legislation we pass through the parliament this week or in the near future—if we pass anything at all—will inevitably need to change as circumstances change. We need to be part of that debate because this emissions trading scheme needs to be better than the one put on the table by this government.